After decades of influence, the media mogul isn’t so much a person as an epoch
“Those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste, and end by debauching it.”
– T.S. Eliot (attrib), The Pilkington Report on Broadcasting, 1962
“Privacy is for paedos.”
– Paul McMullan, former News of the World journalist, in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, 2011
A man falling down, especially an important man, has been considered an ill omen since ancient times. It is somehow intuitive – no special explanation is needed for the origin of fallen angels, or the expression “pride goeth before a fall”. It is not mere superstition either. In older adults, falls really are a harbinger of senescence and death, and geriatric patients will often hide these events from their doctors and their families, recognising what they represent in terms of fading life force. The most dangerous type of ground-level fall involves white males over the age of 85, especially those who break a bone. When Rupert Murdoch slipped and severely injured his back on the deck of a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean, he was 86.
Those who watch Murdoch, many of whom wish him ill, noted the significances. The yacht was owned by Lachlan Murdoch, one of several prospective dynastic heirs to the family companies, and Murdoch senior stumbled in the fresh hours of 2018, not long after New Year’s Eve. “I hope you all are having a great start to 2018,” he wrote to his staff later. “I suspect it has been better than mine. I am writing to tell you that last week I had a sailing accident and suffered a painful back injury. While I am well on the road to recovery, I have to work from home for some weeks.”
The some weeks became some months, and rumours circulated that the injuries were more serious than a bad back. The tycoon, it was said, had hit his head. In public, he had been rambly and vague for a while. Some thought this was an act: at the Leveson Inquiry into press malpractice in 2012, his dotty demeanour was compared to the pseudo-dementia of the arraigned Junior Soprano in The Sopranos. Now apparently it was for real.
Few executives are as synonymous with their companies as Rupert Murdoch is with his. News Corp, he had said in the past, “for better or worse, is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values”. Not only does he govern them by fiat, stacking boards with lackeys, consulting little further than his gut, he also has not much life outside the office. He has few friends and virtually no hobbies. (His biographer Michael Wolff noted that “he may be the only Australian man not interested in sports” – he is said to have purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise without ever having seen a live game of baseball.) He has struck the balance between work and family life by bringing his children to work.
It seemed natural, then, that as Rupert Murdoch lay in bed his company was in the balance as well, not bankrupted but in the process of being broken up. It had already been split into two in 2013, and in December 2017, Disney announced it was seeking to buy the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox, leaving the news concerns to the Murdochs. Some tried to paint this divestment as a failure, just as in the past Murdoch has been accused of failures that reap him tens of millions of dollars. This time it was an overall deal worth more than $US50 billion. The arrival of another possible buyer in Comcast seemed to confirm the irresistible prospect that Murdoch and Murdoch Inc. were reaching the end of the line, even if it did also mean a bigger payday for the old fox.
Pundits began the dangerous business of peering into the future. Possibilities were war-gamed: the sons, James and Lachlan, would take over, or at least Lachlan would. (By April, he was already taking Rupert’s empty chair at meetings.) These changes would supposedly stem the destructive rage at the US cable network Fox News, long rumoured to be an embarrassment to the young scions, and possibly Murdoch himself. The Australian and The Times newspapers, reliant on subsidy, would be wound up and sold off. There was speculation about resignation, succession and even death. (A year before, former ABC presenter Quentin Dempster had called on Murdoch to resign for the good of journalism.) Instead, Rupert Murdoch did what he always does, and recovered and went back to work.
His first real public appearance was at the Trump White House’s inaugural state dinner in April, where he was one of the only civilian attendees. (Donald Trump speaks to Murdoch regularly, and calls him “Rupie”; according to Wolff, in return Murdoch thinks Trump is a “fucking idiot”.) Murdoch is close to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and reportedly pressed him for an invitation. The same month Murdoch hosted a dinner for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was visiting the United States. Bin Salman is one of the world’s richest men – he began his tour by booking all 285 rooms at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills – and together he and Murdoch have a net worth roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Mongolia. They sparred lightly in a genteel Q&A session, where the sharia-mania of Murdoch’s media properties seemed a long way away, as did premonitions of demise.
In late June, it was announced that Disney had offered $US71.3 billion to buy most of Fox’s entertainment assets – beating Comcast’s previous bid of $US65 billion. In the months of Murdoch’s recuperation, his price had risen by $20 billion, and the bidding wouldn’t stop there.
It is not too soon to start countenancing legacy, though. Murdoch is a legacy unto himself, at least in the sense of something left over from a previous era, but still in active existence. Within the Murdoch companies, plans for his succession are made on the assumptions of something like immortality. “Don’t you know my dad’s never going to die?” his son Lachlan said once. When a Wall Street Journal editor asked his boss, Robert Thomson, about pre-preparing an obituary for Murdoch (a standard newspaper practice), he was told, “Rupert is not going to die.” “In the event he does?” the editor asked. “Rupert is not going to die,” he was told again. Murdoch once rejected 10-year and 20-year contingencies for his replacement, finally settling on a 30-year plan he was comfortable with. He was then 76. He likes to point out that his mother, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, lived until 104. She did not, though, run a major international company as a centenarian.
Murdoch had already survived prostate cancer 18 years ago, and a fall from a horse before that. Business-wise, he had shrugged off the UK phone-hacking scandal, the advent of the internet, attempts at regulation, private debt crises, delayed satellite launches. After five decades of writing him off, Murdoch watchers should have been more careful. Tom Shales, the TV critic at The Washington Post, once told PBS’s Frontline that “Murdoch is someone who seems to have been allowed to grow unchecked, like – you know, like some sort of monster in a science fiction movie, The Blob or something. And you keep waiting for somebody to sort of shape him up and push him back in, but it doesn’t happen.” Shales said that in 1995, and neither age nor circumstance have changed its pertinence.
There is something deeply unsatisfactory about the Rupert Murdoch story – the lack of consequences, the triumph of cynicism – and it trips those who tell it into making the same mistakes over and over again. He has attracted a coterie of chroniclers, many of very high quality, who are tempted to contrive comeuppances for him. “You have to write something at the end,” one biographer told me, so they suggest that his journalists might stand up to their boss (this has happened a couple of times, but not for decades), that he might be spayed by regulators (never happened), that he might be overcome by second thoughts. All wishful thinking. “If I was going to be shot tomorrow morning, I bet I could get out of it,” Murdoch said once, and he does.
There is no happy ending, and hardly even any character development. Instead, Murdoch seems to exist in his own time, an era rather than a character. “What does Rupert Murdoch want?” the now deceased Christopher Hitchens asked, 28 years ago. He was already part of the fourth decade of Murdoch observers, and the library trying to answer this question stretches and swells to the present day. Delving into it finds almost spooky continuities. Reading The Australian, I thought “vendetta journalism” seemed a concise, if obvious, description of the paper’s style, and wondered if anyone had used it before. Donald Horne had, in 1975, years before I was born. In 1969, Murdoch and the then editor, Larry Lamb, redesigned The Sun, inventing the enduring form of the modern tabloid – right down to the red top. Murdoch was then, as now, in competition with a new technology threatening the print media. It was colour television.
Events that might have been career or life defining to anyone else are half-remembered in Murdoch’s, miniaturised by the scale of his events. There was a kidnapping attempt on Anna Murdoch, Rupert’s second wife, not long after the couple moved to the UK. Muriel McKay, the wife of one of Murdoch’s senior executives, was murdered as a result. It was a case of mistaken identity: the McKays had borrowed the Murdoch family car. Anna said in 2001 it was like something that “happened to someone else. That sort of period was somebody else … another lifetime.” Part of the tension in their marriage reportedly came from a belief Rupert might finally retire when he hit his 60s. That was almost 30 years ago.
The Murdoch epoch was also supposed to end, or at least begin to end, on July 19, 2011, the self-described “most humble day” of Murdoch’s life. The News man, called before the UK House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, did his best impression of a human being, a bumbling, forelock-tugging old man with an Anglospheric mongrel accent. He was there to explain the apparent fact that he was running what one MP called a “criminal enterprise”: his newspapers were illegally hacking thousands of people’s phones, alongside bribing police officers and public servants.
However, he had an accidental ally. An activist and failed stand-up comedian (code name: Jonnie Marbles; real name: Jonathan May-Bowles) had hidden a pie made from shaving foam in the hearing room. At the right moment he would thrust it into Murdoch’s face, shouting “You naughty billionaire!”, and turn humility into humiliation. Instead, Marbles missed with most of the pie, Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng, punched him in the face, he was arrested (and later sentenced to six weeks in jail, inevitably announcing outside the courtroom “This is the most humble day of my life”), and Murdoch barely changed posture.
The mood in the room changed. It had become a joke. “Don’t worry, this will play well,” the MP Tom Watson overheard one of Murdoch’s crew saying. “Rupert must have fixed that,” someone from the press muttered as they were ushered out of the room. “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” Baron Macaulay wrote a long time ago. Rupert Murdoch might know more about those fits than anyone else who has ever lived, and he had outlived another one.
Some journalists went to jail, Murdoch’s son James was forced to step down from News International, but the measures to further investigate widespread criminality on Fleet Street never materialised. A cross-party parliamentary committee determined Rupert Murdoch was “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”, but so what? It added to a pile of ineffectual establishment condemnation and naysaying. It was really language aimed at assisting the regulator, Ofcom, but that had never worked in the past either. The secretary for culture and media, Jeremy Hunt, had once been nicknamed “The Minister for Murdoch”.
There was always something that was supposed to bring about his downfall. He didn’t understand the internet. He didn’t even know how to use email. The purchase of MySpace had bloodied his nose. Print newspapers were dead. His reputation as a CEO was in the doldrums. He was not the man to manage in the digital age. Tabloid dinosaurs were on the brink of extinction. But the downfalls always seemed to happen to other people. Rupert Murdoch had fared better than his direct competitors. Robert Maxwell had disappeared off his yacht. Conrad Black went to jail. Ted Turner challenged him to two televised fist fights that never transpired. The others – it was hard to even remember their names.
When Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith, bequeathed him a small Adelaide-based press consortium in his will, he wrote, “I desire that my said son Keith Rupert Murdoch shall have the great opportunity of spending a useful altruistic and full life in newspaper and broadcasting activities and of ultimately occupying a position of high responsibility.” He hoped, he wrote in an accompanying letter, that Murdoch might use the company to “do some good”.
The “full life” and “position of high responsibility” have transpired. But how many people not employed by him would describe Keith Rupert Murdoch as an altruist?
Lachlan Murdoch’s yacht is called Sarissa, the name of an ancient Greek spear. James Murdoch studied history at Harvard, and often draws on this knowledge to name things. (One of James’s pet projects inside News Corp was called “Project Rubicon”.) He must know there is a special exception to the rule that a fallen leader presages disaster. The sarissa was introduced to the armies of antiquity by Philip II of Macedon, who once tried to kill his son Alexander the Great in a drunken wedding fight, but slipped and fell instead. When Julius Caesar arrived at Hadrumetum to attack Carthage, he landed face-first on the sand, and a murmur went through his army that this was fatal, but he laughed and said, “Oh Africa, I have you!” And at Pevensey in 1066, the man then called William the Bastard tripped off the boat.
The exception to the superstition is conquerors.
Rupert Murdoch believes that the press is not as powerful as people think, that it follows the public, not the other way around, and that its influence is overstated. At least, this is his line when talking to a judge. “If these lies are repeated again and again they catch on,” he told Lord Leveson. “But they just aren’t true … We don’t have that sort of power.” He was referring to the power to swing elections. He has been careful to maintain this stance, at least most of the time. Privately he did tell Harold Evans that he was more powerful than the government.
But he does not look powerful, and did not look any more powerful when he was younger. He is self-deprecating, even self-effacing, a cheapskate who used to have a Hong Kong tailor make knock-off suits, before Wendi Deng gave him a makeover. He is cheeky in interviews, and over the years has made the transition from boyish to avuncular without much in between, though his tentative smile and darting eyes have grown less self-conscious.
He emanates reasonableness, not sulphur. He makes few gestures of dominance, though he does have a habit of tapping his palm or his watch on the surface in front of him when he talks. (There was a moment during the Leveson Inquiry, a tense moment, when his wife, sitting behind him, reached out a staying hand to his elbow – he was doing it again.) Overall, this anodyne, rather dorky presence is hard to square with the Rupert Murdoch that his peers describe. This is no doubt part of the danger.
The words they use – mogul, empire, fiefdom, dynasty, properties – are the language of territorial, even imperial, power, although this transposition between the feudal realm and the financial realm is commonplace. Less common is the response others have to Murdoch. Other formidable people not only respect him but are also afraid of him. They note that his influence is transcontinental, ranging from Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States. It is more lasting than political power: during his career, he has enjoyed access to nine US presidents, nine British prime ministers and nine Australian prime ministers. It is not just his current power but his aggregate power over time that produces velocity.
Both his enemies and those who work for him paint him as an almost supernatural figure. Beyond critics calling him “the Supreme Satan”, or “Dracula”, or the “Prince of Darkness” are eyewitnesses to Murdoch’s uniquely insinuative and wily approach.
In Australia, Kevin Rudd’s former campaign manager Bruce Hawker wrote that News Corp is “easily the most powerful political force in Australia, bigger than the major parties or the combined weight of the unions … I saw how, on a daily basis, the storm of negative stories that emanated from News Corp papers blew our campaign off course.”
In the UK, Murdoch’s tabloids were at one time the most feared political force in the country. This is partly due to their concentration – they are national tabloids, not city-based – and also their supreme nastiness. The former director general of the BBC John Birt once met a government minister who was physically shaking at the prospect of an imminent meeting with Murdoch.
“I have never met Mr Murdoch,” the former Tony Blair communications deputy Lance Price wrote for The Guardian, “but at times when I worked at Downing Street he seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet. His voice was rarely heard … but his presence was always felt. No big decision could ever be made inside No 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men – Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch.”
There is a temptation to play out counterfactuals and counter-histories. Would Margaret Thatcher have been PM without The Sun? Would the Iraq War have happened without Rupert Murdoch? For a man invested in a lot, he was unusually invested in this disgrace, and in the lead-up to invasion Tony Blair spoke with him almost as often as he spoke with his generals. The thought experiment is not interesting so much for its result but for its difficulty. Murdoch media properties were so synonymous with the call to arms it is hard to imagine the clamour in a different voice.
That indivisibility extends to the rest of our cultural reality. Murdoch’s close association with Fox News and The Wall Street Journal are obvious, but he is just as responsible for Harlequin romance novels, realtor.com, and Married at First Sight Australia. It is easy to underestimate the scale of his cultural impact: The Simpsons, Avatar, the format of the modern tabloid newspaper and cable television sports coverage would not exist without Rupert Murdoch. We can play this game with whole countries. Today’s Australia feels more insular, völkisch and hostile in character than its near neighbour New Zealand. Is this just an accident of history or the end product of strong Murdoch influence in one place and weak Murdoch influence in the other?
If you bought Harper Lee’s second novel, you gave money to Rupert Murdoch. It is possible to work for him without really realising it – partway through writing this piece I remembered that I had once worked for The Sunday Times in the UK and then remembered that Factiva, the research tool I was relying on, is a Murdoch property as well. Even Michael Moore, Murdoch critic extraordinaire, is a sometime Murdoch employee, and his Stupid White Men was published, albeit reluctantly, by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins.
News’s ambitions are not confined to Earth either. Andrew Neil, a former editor of The Sunday Times, said that Murdoch once told him he had bet the entire company on the launch of a satellite. Like many of those close to Murdoch – Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times; Les Hinton, the former Dow Jones CEO; even Philip, Murdoch’s former butler – Neil felt compelled to write about his relationship with his boss, perhaps to say that he had survived it.
The Sun King
It was Neil who first gave Murdoch one of his most durable nicknames – the Sun King – and made one of the most influential descriptions of him. In his book Full Disclosure, he wrote:
When you work for Rupert Murdoch you do not work for a company chairman or chief executive: you work for a Sun King. You are not a director or a manager or an editor: you are a courtier at the court of the Sun King … All life revolves around the Sun King: all authority comes from him. He is the only one to whom allegiance must be owed and he expects his remit to run everywhere, his word to be final. There are no other references but him. He is the only benchmark and anybody of importance reports direct to him. Normal management structures – all the traditional lines of authority, communication and decision-taking in the modern business corporation – do not matter. The Sun King is all that matters.
This understanding has been endorsed by others close to the throne. One executive admitted to Neil that he had dreamed about Murdoch for years after he left his employ. David Yelland, the former editor of The Sun, likened his boss’s mindset to a “prism” through which News editors saw the world. “Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened and think ‘what would Rupert think about this?’ It’s like a mantra inside your head,” he said. “You look at the world through Rupert’s eyes.” Another Sun editor, the legendary Kelvin MacKenzie, once said that if the boss told him to print the paper in Sanskrit, he would do so without question.
MacKenzie himself was a tyrannical man – Murdoch affectionately called him “my little Hitler” – and along with Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, he personified the ugly, hectoring soul of British tabloid journalism. ‘‘Look at you lot, eh?” began a typical MacKenzie pep talk. “Useless load of fuckers, aren’t you, eh? Right load of wankers, eh, eh?” Bullying was so endemic at News’s Wapping compound that The Sun once published a staff member’s phone extension in the paper, inviting readers to abuse him, under the headline “RING HIGGY THE HUMAN SPONGE, HE’LL SOAK IT UP”.
But Murdoch was the biggest bully of all. After a million-pound libel settlement to Elton John, MacKenzie was subjected to 42 minutes of non-stop abuse – “the bollocking of a lifetime”, he called it. Other times it would be more studied psychological disintegration: “You’re losing your touch, Kelvin. [Pause] Your paper is pathetic. [Pause] You’re losing your touch, Kelvin.” A favourite Murdoch tactic was silence over the phone, lengthy enough to induce the other person to crack, and over time MacKenzie would learn to keep shtum as well, locking the two in unspoken brinksmanship. Staff joked about the thousands of pounds spent conveying silence over the Atlantic.
Broadsheet editors, in whom Murdoch feels less invested, receive a more icy disdain. Neil was given the silence, but not the performative abuse. Still, the calls left him “angry and depressed”, he said, until he tried MacKenzie’s tactic. Neil answered silence with a silence so long he “could have gone and made a cup of tea”.
“Just as I was about to crack,” Neil wrote in Full Disclosure, “he finally said, ‘Are you still there?’” Murdoch then excused himself – he had to go.
Eric Beecher, a former Murdoch executive, once said that the empire was ruled “by phone and by clone”. The intimacy of these relationships with his editors – Murdoch, jet-lagged or up late, freshly landed or in the office in person, asking after the front page, the editorial line, the gossip – provoke an old question: how much direct editorial influence does the proprietor wield? “He has said he never interferes with his editors’ editorial decisions,” the correspondent Phillip Knightley said. “Absolutely true, because he is careful to choose editors whose views agree with his.”
A former News employee put it this way: “To be honest, I think Murdoch’s presence was a less important feature of the environment at News than the character of the fairly idiosyncratic editors he appointed to represent him. The most charismatic of those editors, Paul Kelly, told me that Murdoch brought no influence to bear on his commissioning or story selection. I’ve often wondered if this was a hollow boast, but I believe it was largely true, or true at the time. Kelly was later removed by Murdoch, so I wonder if the game had changed by then.”
The editors are more “idiosyncratic” at The Australian than anywhere else. It has none of the prestige of The Times or the tradition of The Wall Street Journal, and a cousin-marriage ideological relationship with the Liberal Party. Apart from a handful of talents who might be spirited to the higher echelons of News itself, most Australian senior editorial staff find there is nowhere to go, no other paper to poach them, no organisation (apart from the Liberal Party again) keen for their talents. They are lifers, and express their gratitude with a loyalty that borders on the obsequious.
Happily, as the paper’s hard-copy readership has settled into old age, the proclivities of its readers and its proprietor have become more symbiotic. Did The Australian’s bizarre jihad against wind farms stem from Murdoch’s frequently voiced disdain for them? Hard to prove, and there is no special conspiracy required: the paper’s readers cling to the same topic, perhaps the only time they express concern for native birdlife.
Christopher Hitchens wrote that when politicians said they were afraid of Rupert Murdoch what they were really saying was that they were afraid of his readers. But this misses the intensely personal presence of Murdoch in the political world, where he is not a proxy for his readers but for his businesses. For a free-marketeer, he has been adroit at fostering regulatory capture. He is not shy about lying, or confessing to this lying.
“You tell these bloody politicians whatever they want to hear,” he told his biographer Thomas Kiernan, “and once the deal is done you don’t worry about it. They’re not going to chase after you later if they suddenly decide what you said wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Otherwise they’re made to look bad, and they can’t abide that. So they just stick their heads up their asses and wait for the blow to pass.”
He is more patient than politicians, and more cunning. There is something about Murdoch’s insistency that seems to change the conduits of time: he forgives no transgression, while his transgressions are forgiven. Politicians manage to persuade themselves they can use him to their benefit, but find out the hard way who is in charge. “It is better to ride the tiger’s back than let it rip your throat out,” Tony Blair once said. It is hard not to see in Blair’s rumoured affair with Murdoch’s wife some cold revenge. (Post-divorce, the Murdoch camp stopped denying these rumours, and even leaked an embarrassing mash note Deng wrote about Blair: “I’m so so missing Tony,” she wrote. “Because he is so so charming and his clothes are so good. He has such good body and he has really really good legs Butt . . . And he is slim tall and good skin. Pierce blue eyes which I love. Love his eyes. Also I love his power on the stage …”)
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is more indicative of how these tiger rides usually end. He was so poorly treated by Murdoch’s Australian newspapers that in a recent interview with The Saturday Paper he called News Corp a “cancer” on democracy and suggested it should be the subject of a royal commission. “They go after people who have the audacity to raise a question about their behaviour,” Rudd said. He added, “It’s one of the reasons I’m speaking out directly, so that people can have a normal national conversation rather than a continued national embarrassed silence about this.”
Rudd’s sense of wounding was understandable. Less so was his decision to write for The Australian shortly afterwards – six days after The Saturday Paper interview, the national broadsheet ran a piece called “What We Got Right: Kevin Rudd’s Top 10 Labor Triumphs in Office”, by Kevin Rudd. The cancer was seemingly inoperable.
Why didn’t we think of that?
Former politicians seeking rapprochement with the Murdoch media are relatively rare. Usually, it is a hopeful opposition leader, or a grateful incumbent, who tries to accommodate themselves. Murdoch is a right-wing ideologue, but not the most doctrinaire kind. His papers editorialised in favour of the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, supported Tony Blair extensively, and launched the career of the Democratic New York mayor Ed Koch in such one-eyed fashion that New York Post reporters complained. This history means that left-wing parties (unless they are, say, the Australian Greens or UK Labour under Jeremy Corbyn) can be seduced into thinking they may get a fair hearing.
It is nearly forgotten now, but Murdoch’s earliest serious politicking was his support for Gough Whitlam. He even instructed Evan Williams to write a speech for Whitlam in 1972; Whitlam wouldn’t give it. “In every basic area of human need,” Williams wrote, “the Australian people are deprived and wanting, and lagging behind other comparable nations.” The speech takes aim at private health insurance and private schools, and advocates efficient public transport, unpolluted cities, and equality of access to services. Most notable is the language. “Australians are entitled to them – as a right. We will provide them – as a right.” Murdoch would go on to attack this idea of “entitlement” more than almost any other person. By 1975 he was instructing his editors to “kill Whitlam”.
There is a half-believed explanation for this turnaround. Once elected, Whitlam didn’t give Murdoch the credit he anticipated, and compounded the insult by ditching him for a dinner with English television host David Frost. If Whitlam had been more grateful, the story goes, perhaps Murdoch would have been a lion for the left instead. This overlooks how thin Murdoch’s views are, and how capricious. He has supported candidates as outlandish as Ross Perot and Ben Carson. His ideas are skittish and shallow, and he has the easily bored political positioning of a rich man with no fixed abode.
“I don’t know that my views are as right wing as they’re painted to be,” Murdoch once said, but Andrew Neil countered that his former boss is much more right wing than he first appears. Perhaps what Murdoch means is that he is a social moderate: years ago, he dabbled with the candidacy of the televangelist Pat Robertson, but now cultivates only a garden-variety homophobia, which he has the sense to keep quiet about. “I’m considered homophobic and crazy about these things and old-fashioned” was his take on same-sex marriage.
On foreign policy, though, few are more belligerent. When Margaret Thatcher was negotiating with the Chinese over Hong Kong’s sovereignty, Murdoch suggested dropping an atomic bomb on Beijing should they invade, conceding that “I suppose we could fire a warning nuke into a desert first”. His most significant falling out with Thatcher came when she refused to back Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. During the Falklands War, The Sun’s coverage was so jingoistic that Private Eye parodied it with a headline reading “KILL AN ARGIE AND WIN A METRO”. Service personnel thought the offer of a car was real. “Why didn’t we think of that?” Kelvin MacKenzie is said to have responded.
Someone in a time machine pressing Gough Whitlam towards a dreary dinner would be making a more fundamental mistake: misunderstanding the role of the media in a Western society. Bellicosity is virtually a prerequisite for becoming a popular press baron. War feeds the interests of proprietors as well as their readers – and this function of power dates back centuries. In 1776 Adam Smith could note that
the people who live in the capital … feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies … They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.
This warmongering is only a single element in a set of selection biases. Alongside William Randolph Hearst or Lord Northcliffe, Murdoch looks unexceptional, no longer one of a kind. A News underling writing today could note a “volcanic intolerance of slipshod work”, outline Murdoch’s enthusiasm for “fact before argument”, or argue that he “had little concern for the abstract … was not a thinker … was mainly emotional … was more interested in people than in things” – but these are descriptions of the father of popular journalism, Lord Northcliffe, written in 1931. As Guardian writer Ian Jack pointed out, they applied equally to Paul Dacre. A gambler in business who always wins, someone with an uncanny ability to divine the tastes of the public – so many of the conditions of Murdoch’s career are pre-conditions for survivorship, not deep insights into his character.
Bloody press lords
One thing that did make Murdoch exceptional was his lack of care for social graces. This, set against the stiff propriety of upper-class Britain, is perhaps his most Australian quality. “I’m quite ashamed,” he said. “I enjoy popular journalism. I must say I enjoy it more than what you would call quality journalism.” But he wasn’t really ashamed at all. When Watergate happened, Murdoch’s response broke with the rest of the journalistic class. “The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon,” he said, “but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West.” He would be in the business of speaking power to truth instead.
Before he railed against Commies, Murdoch was one. One of the key props of his life is a bust of Lenin kept in his rooms at Oxford, to which he would drink toasts and recite Russian poetry. This relic of “Red Rupe” is supposed to show the extremity of his evolution: from undergraduate Marxist in the Labour Club to a union-breaker and Thatcherite-in-chief. It was, he said, his tussle with the printing union chapels of Fleet Street – “the most searing experience of my life” – that repelled him from labour politics forever. He repaid the chapels by disbanding them for good, with the assistance of Margaret Thatcher and her police.
The printing unions in the 1970s were an almost parodic expression of the inefficiencies of “Winter of Discontent” British labourism. Sexist, corrupt, rife with go-slows and no-shows, they took The Times, never a profit-making newspaper, to the absolute brink of bankruptcy. (In an irony that would be noted later, The Times was unable to report on Thatcher’s ascension to 10 Downing Street because of a year-long industrial action.) But Murdoch’s easy transition to the side of capital, shedding his undergraduate state socialism in the process, glosses over something more fundamental. He has never stopped being a Leninist, at least in the Steve Bannon–like sense of wanting to destroy the contemporary establishment.
The ready psychological explanation for this is his status as a perpetual outsider. At Geelong Grammar he was the son of a press baron, not the offspring of landed gentry, and was bullied accordingly. He was a colonial in Great Britain, and a man of initiative in the stuffy languor of Menzies’ Australia. In the United States he was a foreigner trying to do business in New York City with no connections (a category previously considered ripe for fleecing), and a newspaper proprietor who did not share America’s sacral view of the press. He hated all of these incumbent attitudes, and not only sought revenge on them but also saw them as opportunities for arbitrage. They were different, but also fundamentally the same: flabby, mistaken and patronising enclaves, ripe for attack from real competition. He has called these people many names – Commies, and poofters, and limp liberals – but one particular epithet is most salient: “the bishops”.
The ur-establishment Murdoch set himself against, the template for all the others, was Establishment Britain after the Second World War. He encountered it twice, first in 1950 as a student at Oxford, then again when he started his British newspaper empire, beginning with the purchase of the News of the World in 1969. In Australia, the Murdochs were unusual among establishment families for their Anglophobia (partly driven by Sir Keith Murdoch’s experiences at Gallipoli), and Rupert reserved special hostility for English snobbery. The hostility was reciprocated – at Oxford, a magazine described him as a “brilliant betting man with the individual Billingsgate touch”, a reference to the coarse, working-class fish market known for its foul language.
There is a British tradition of colonial subjects, especially Canadians, gaining peerages through owning newspapers, and at first Murdoch seemed to be joining it. Roy Herbert Thomson, the son of a barber, became Lord Thomson of Fleet. William Maxwell Aitken, one of 10 children, became Lord Beaverbrook. Conrad Black became Lord Black of Crossharbour. These men put on airs, and renounced their own citizenships, and bought into the deference and ludicrousness of the English aristocracy. (In return, hereditary peers considered them the apogee of vulgarity.)
But Murdoch’s key advantage, apart from being sober (he once said that on Fleet Street this made him a comparative genius after lunchtime), was that he wasn’t interested in any kind of social esteem. Not from those people, anyway. The press wasn’t a route to anything else, it was the final destination. “When people start taking knighthoods and peerages,” he told one of his biographers, “it really is telling the world you’ve sold out.” Worse than being obsequious, it was a mistake.
The establishment attacked Murdoch with gusto from the beginning. He serialised a Christine Keeler book when former minister John Profumo’s reputation was being rehabilitated, and David Frost prepared a hostile reception for him on television, complete with booing audience. (David Frost has a lot to answer for.) Murdoch, uncowed, suggested Britain was under the thumb of its upper classes, and Frost said with disdain, “That’s an Australian view of England … I mean, of course there’s a lot of daft old-school ties in this country and so on but it doesn’t work like that – the establishment are not as well organised as that.” Murdoch replied, “You reckon?”
Not long afterwards, he bought the production company responsible for the show.
“The British always thought in terms of their empire and were pretty patronising toward us Australians,” Murdoch recalled in a 2005 interview. “Pat you on your head and say ‘You’ll do well,’ and when you do well they kick you to death.” Not only would he not succumb to this attitude, or try to ignore it, he would attack it. “The Sun has no party politics,” ran a front-page manifesto in its first week proper under Murdoch management. “The Sun is a radical newspaper. We are not going to bow to the establishment in any of its privileged enclaves. Ever.” Impervious to the need for honours, Murdoch was going to kick the establishment to death instead.
Hey sonny, you can’t park here
In 1953, when Murdoch took over his father’s business, he was only 22, and so green that when he pulled his car into the Adelaide News garage that he owned, an attendant called, “Hey sonny, you can’t park here.” He had watched his father carefully, though, and had also worked as a sub-editor on Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, then an influential and popular newspaper. This tutelage means that Murdoch is probably the only press baron in the world who could, if necessary, perform almost any of the jobs on any of his news titles.
He has excellent editorial judgement. Once, counselling Piers Morgan not to splash with an image of Ronnie Kray’s corpse, he told him that “stiffs don’t sell papers, they sell American magazines”. (He was right.) He can sub-edit in a way that is now almost extinct – when he took over The Wall Street Journal, he dictated the new look of the front page with a Magic Marker, right down to the size of the picture boxes. Post-takeover, the paper became the highest selling national paper in America.
He can report. Michael Wolff found him on the phone, note-pad working, calling sources and making corroborations. (Typically, this industry was for a New York Post gossip story smearing Hillary Clinton; it never ran.) He can write. In 1974, the founder of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, told Murdoch how much he loved the National Star’s political column. Who wrote it? Murdoch did, under a pseudonym.
He also has an uncanny eye for detail. Proofreading his wife Anna’s novel, a rural romance, he clocked that she had the Murrumbidgee River flowing the wrong way.
When he bought the News of the World, it published on the weekend; he bought The Sun so that the expensive presses would not be dormant during the week. One was broadsheet format, and one was tabloid format, and the printers told him printing these on the same press was impossible. His biographer William Shawcross described what happened next:
He informed the printers that their presses had originally been supplied with bars which would fold the pages to tabloid size. The head printer denied it. So Murdoch took off his jacket and climbed onto a press. In a box at the top of the machine he found the bar in question wrapped in sacking and covered in ink and grime.
Murdoch combines his intelligences with this kind of ready reckoning, some of it quite philistine. Like many gamblers he reads the horoscopes. (The Sun’s editors were always trying to get him in a good mood by cooking the entry for Pisces.) Anna Murdoch tried to get him interested in the arts, but he didn’t care if it was Carmen or Camelot. He wears a transparently quackish brand of watch that provides a “constant supply of natural frequencies that circle the earth”; it is supposed to be good for his jetlag. The criticism that he dumbs down every media property he purchases is largely true. Even when taking over TV Guide, he complained that it was “far too cerebral”.
Together, his aptitude and his tastes combine into something one of his editors, Sam Hall Kaplan, called “crassmanship”. “When it comes to headlines, as well as the play of stories, Rupert sheds with ease, if not relief, his Oxford prejudices, intellectual pretensions and the mannerisms of his wealth,” Kaplan wrote in a 1985 review of Michael Leapman’s Arrogant Aussie: The Rupert Murdoch Story. The proprietor’s talent is “uniquely geared to attract the lowest common denominator of reader”. This unique gearing never made the New York Post a profit, but it worked in Australia and on Fleet Street, and it clearly informed the thinking behind Fox News too.
Looking back, it is difficult to appreciate the contrast. At the end of the 1960s, tabloid proprietors still had a naive, almost pathetic sense of stewardship; it was still possible to hear them talk about a “mission to educate”. The Sun itself was pro Labor. The Daily Mirror ran an ambitious supplement called Mirrorscope, aimed at educating its readers on world affairs in a lively way. When planning his redesign of The Sun, Murdoch once picked up a copy of Mirrorscope and put it into the bin. “If you think we’re going to have any of that upmarket shit in our paper,” he told Godfrey Hodgson of The Sunday Times, “you’re very much mistaken.”
The relaunched Sun crushed the Mirror instantly and permanently. Mirrorscope was gone by 1974. The Mirror was forced to ape its every move – especially the introduction of bingo – or die trying. Murdoch’s mother disapproved of the crass and sexual nature of The Sun (this objection is often cited as the reason his Australian newspapers had no Page 3 girls), but he had explained his reasoning about the popular press to her: “Look, Mum, in Britain there are hundreds of thousands of people who are living in miserable postwar tenement places. They have nothing in the world but the Pools and, you know, this is the sort of thing that they [want].”
At its peak in the early 1990s, The Sun was selling four million copies a day in a country of 55 million people, and it wasn’t just read in the tenements.
Funny, hypocritical, racist, jingoist, homophobic and leering, and with a new disdain for the royal family generally and their privacy in particular, together The Sun and the News of the World transformed the United Kingdom, and in the process degraded it. It was the ultimate form of colonial revenge. Britain, not Australia, Murdoch seemed to say, was the crass and ugly place, with the coarse and common people with the insatiably lurid tastes. Just look at its press. Christopher Hitchens called the process “the replacement of gutter journalism by sewer journalism”. Instead of repudiating this sort of charge, Murdoch and his employees revelled in it. Kelvin MacKenzie later suggested that his own epitaph should read, “He lived and died in the gutter.”
Bringing the tone down
What unites Murdoch’s “crassmanship” and his business sense is an eye for human weakness. When Murdoch bought the News of the World, for example, he realised that its establishment owners would be reluctant to sell to his competitor, Robert Maxwell, because he was Jewish. Murdoch drank tea from a china set to impress them, and ordered some uncharacteristic champagne. This pantomime display of gentlemanly manners made them sign an agreement they shouldn’t have, and he quickly undermined them.
The same instinct is expressed in the people he hires. Nick Davies described this synergy between company and product in Hack Attack:
“He loves thugs,” as one of his senior executives puts it. Roger Ailes at Fox TV; Kelvin MacKenzie at The Sun; Col Allan at the New York Post; Sam Chisholm at Sky TV: they all came out of the same box, marked “bully”. And when Murdoch’s men bully, their victims really feel it. All these members of the power elite have seen what Murdoch’s news outlets can do, using their stories in the same way muggers in back alleys use their boots, to kick a victim to pulp. “Monstering”, they call it – a savage and prolonged public attack on a target’s life, often aimed at the most private and sensitive part of their existence, their sexual behaviour, inflicting maximum pain, maximum humiliation.
You would anticipate then that the Murdoch media arm that does the most bullying externally does the most bullying internally, and that is so.
Not long ago, the management at Fox News put up wall posters extolling staff to speak up about improper behaviour. This marked the establishment of a Workplace Professionalism and Inclusion Council, which would report independently to the 21st Century Fox board. This body, as incongruous as an ice-cream shop in hell, exists in a workplace antithetical to diversity and professionalism. It is there only because it was mandated as part of a suit settlement, and has its work cut out. The same month the council launched, Fox News presenter Sean Hannity, himself accused of sexual harassment, ran a series of segments claiming women invent stories of workplace mistreatment for the money.
Curious about this development, I contacted one of the council members, the former vice president of litigation at NBC, Brande Stellings, to find out what her job was like. It was the only interview I have ever conducted where I did not even hear the subject’s voice: her communications person jumped in at every question, before ending the call. She then referred me instead to Irena Briganti, Fox’s executive vice president for corporate communications. Several Fox women told New York magazine in 2016 that “one of the reasons they did not speak up about sexual harassment in the past was that they were terrified Briganti would find out and smear them in the press”.
Few expected Briganti to survive the 2016 firing of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, and one of the worst prolific sexual abusers in American corporate history. “[Briganti’s] departure would send a powerful signal of just how dramatically the Murdochs intend to change Fox News post-Ailes,” New York magazine wrote. What her retention might mean it did not say, but the council’s report should be good.
When Murdoch himself was asked in December 2017 if the Ailes issue had hurt Fox’s bottom line, he replied, “It’s all nonsense. There was a problem with our chief executive. Sort of, over the years. But isolated incidents. As soon as we investigated it he was out of the place in hours – well, three or four days. And there’s been nothing else since then.”
Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer who filed a number of actions on behalf of alleged Fox News harassment and discrimination victims, so many that he had to make a spreadsheet to stay on top of all the allegations, has described both 21st Century Fox and Fox News as having a top-to-bottom “systemic culture of not only discriminating against people based on their gender and color, but also of retaliating against them when they stand up to voice complaints”.
The Murdoch sons are said to be genuinely invested in institutional change at the company, though it seldom seems to arrive. Recently the brothers, in a meeting with the British communications regulator, stressed that “no individual working for Fox News could now be under the impression that sexual harassment is acceptable … having seen the sacking of Mr Ailes, [Bill] O’Reilly and a number of other employees including very senior managers.” Lachlan appointed a female CEO, Suzanne Scott, and pointed to this as a sign of difference. The Washington Post noted that Scott had been named in one complaint as “a member of a team of senior executives who ‘retaliated’ against employees or contributors who complained about Ailes’ alleged harassment”.
Thinking some wall posters change Fox News fundamentally misunderstands what Fox is. The harassment is not an unfortunate by-product of some “big personalities”. It did not become what was described as a “breeding ground for sexual misconduct” by accident. Fox News is itself a form of harassment, aimed at critics and liberal politicians, civilians and reporters, especially if they are persons of colour, especially if they are young women. This applies not just to the content but also to the structure of the organisation.
Erik Wemple, a Washington Post reporter who has covered the scandal extensively, wrote, “Ailes managed to construct a legal-institutional complex at Fox News – complete with a compliant HR apparatus and extensive use of non-disclosure and arbitration agreements – designed to facilitate the sexual harassment of women.” He made multimillion-dollar hush payments with negligible oversight. He had critics followed by private detectives. The look of the network from the very beginning, was, as USA Today put it, “blustery male commentators and women, just as qualified, who were showcased for their looks with revealing clothes and camera shots”.
A combination of angry men and attractive women, and sometimes angry attractive women, is, when you think about it, not an obvious formula for television success. Its invention is usually credited to Roger Ailes, and partly explained by his habit of watching TV with the sound off. He explained this approach in a 1989 book called You Are the Message: Getting What You Want by Being Who You Are. Television is a visual medium, so the best way to rate an anchor was to watch them for 10 minutes on mute. “If nothing moved me toward that sound knob,” he wrote, “I would often recommend terminating the contract of that performer.”
A compelling origin story, but one that overlooks the influence of Rupert Murdoch.
Perhaps Murdoch’s key innovation as a media proprietor has been permanently welding right-wing politics to sexual prurience. This moral deregulation dates all the way back to The Sun – a “tear-away paper with a lot of tit in it” was his blueprint – where he recognised that a conservative periodical printing Page 3 girls and simultaneously complaining about filth on TV wasn’t a problem but a plus. Breaking this ground didn’t stop him getting a papal knighthood (for those of “blameless character”) years later. This tabloid hypocrisy is now uniform and often noted – if you want to experience its most repellent exemplar, search the paedophilia-obsessed Daily Mail website for the phrase “all grown up” – but Murdoch was the person who cemented it, if not invented it.
This investiture in hypocritical sex immediately captures an audience in an act of exclusion, even collusion. Kelvin MacKenzie once barked at one of his staff, “You just don’t understand the readers, do you, eh? He’s the bloke you see in a pub – a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers, weirdos and drug dealers. He doesn’t want to hear about that stuff [serious news].” He is also, it goes without saying, the kind of bloke who is interested in tits and doesn’t mind bandying this interest about in the course of his chronic low-level harassment, under the guise of a “bit of banter”. Media products are also conditioning tools, and Murdoch recognised the potent multiplier effect of feeding xenophobia to a reader with a hard-on.
His targets internationally are the same: nefarious, cosmopolitan and multicultural “elites”.
Murdoch, his immediate family and his executives are elite by any measure of the word, sometimes comically so. Lachlan studied at Princeton, where he wrote a thesis on Kantian ethics. Rebekah Wade, the former editor of The Sun, went to the Sorbonne, and shares the Murdochian taste for yachting and horseback riding. The Australian’s Nick Cater, who made the awkward coinage “the bunyip alumni” to describe the bien pensant tertiary educated, lives in a multimillion-dollar harbour-front apartment in Kirribilli. None of these are impediments to an anti-elitist posture.
What it really means is the endorsement of capital over concern, the lionisation of “fact over feeling”, where the facts are dubious and themselves vehicles for rage, sometimes sadistic rage. The “new establishment” is not really a class so much as a set of ideas, the already beleaguered remains of the postwar social democratic institutions: public universities, public servants, public broadcasters, public transport, and occasionally public health. Anyone who defends them, especially anyone with a degree or a non-white face, is a target. In Murdoch-land, a wealthy lawyer would never be described as elitist unless they worked in human rights. Fighting racism is the real racism. Fighting sexism is the real sexism. Fighting elitism is the real elitism. A multinational media company is not globalist though, because Murdoch believes in sovereignty. Particularly his own.
Take The Australian, supposedly launched after his mother said Murdoch “must publish something decent for a change”. The result is now, 54 years later, one of the most repetitive newspapers in the free world. It is hard to explain to a foreigner just how singular its obsessions are, or to exactly describe the strange manner in which it prosecutes them.
After the News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt was prosecuted under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, The Australian mentioned the legislation more than a hundred thousand times in a campaign to have it scrapped. The campaign failed, although victory was declared. But the main effect was opportunity cost: a significant player in the national conversation couldn’t seem to change the subject.
As Benjamin Law itemised in his Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101, The Australian’s obsession with the Safe Schools sex-education story ran to 90,000 words across almost 200 stories, an average of a story every two days. The Australian responded to this critique with multiple articles critical of Law.
This monomania extends to the other people The Australian pursues most fanatically as well. Julie Posetti, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Emma Alberici, Larissa Behrendt, Gillian Triggs – they are often relatively marginal public figures hounded with a creepy, stalkerish intensity where anything they say or do can be grounds for criticism, vilification or (this is a favourite) calls for their resignation. It is not an accident that this treatment centres on women, and The Australian’s commenters, many of whom apparently go on to troll the targets on social media, take a pleasure in the treatment that borders on the masturbatory. This is the Murdoch version of “something decent”.
Despite what Lachlan Murdoch and Robert Thomson say, Rupert Murdoch will die, but he has already lived more than one life. “The Murdoch-ization of America has never felt so irreversible,” Jonathan Mahler wrote in 2005, in a prescient piece that described how Rupert Murdoch had changed New York City. “On the ashes of the social-democratic city, he built a capitalist utopia where corporate lawyers live in the Soho lofts once occupied by garment workers; where Trump and Diller have replaced Shanker and Gotbaum as icons; where the mayor isn’t just a Republican, he’s a billionaire.” That process has now been repeated across the world, with Donald Trump playing a role grander than even Rupert Murdoch could hope for. Still, Murdoch can hardly complain. Both men share the trait of underestimating the intelligence of the general public, and not going broke.
In the theatre, and this is a kind of theatre, stories that don’t end with retribution end with a wedding. So picture this scene.
Murdoch, age 85, already grandfather to Sigmund Freud’s great-great-grandchildren, has become step-father to Mick Jagger’s daughters as well. Murdoch’s sons are there, as are their model wives, his four daughters, and a selection of his 13 grandchildren. His new wife is Jerry Hall, best known as a former supermodel. She is also rumoured to have been one of the first ever victims of tabloid voicemail hacking, a test case. How else did The Sun manage such precise, gruelling coverage of her split from Mick Jagger in 1999?
One of Hall’s bridesmaids is her daughter Elizabeth Jagger. When Elizabeth was 21, one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper published CCTV stills of her “engaged in sexual activities” in a nightclub, and paid her lover for a tell-all interview.
Now take a look at the reception venue. The celebration of Rupert Murdoch’s fourth marriage is taking place inside Spencer House, owned by Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer, brother of Diana, Princess of Wales. At her funeral, he said: “[Diana] talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum.”
You know who he’s talking about.
Thanks to Marcia Robiou and Katherine Noel for research assistance with this essay.
“Those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste, and end by debauching it.”
– T.S. Eliot (attrib), The Pilkington Report on Broadcasting, 1962
“Privacy is for paedos.”
– Paul McMullan, former News of the World journalist, in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, 2011
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